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Armchair economics

Seeing as the battle over raising the debt limit seems to have hit yet another impasse, it is time for me to speculate what could happen should the US default on its obligations, or follow the silly “cap, cut and balance” approach, with no tax increase on the horizon.

These speculations are just that. The markets are getting jittery and already gold is worth a lot more than it should.

Just let me digress.

Scenario 1: the Aug 2nd deadline is missed.

My gut feeling is that the market will punish the US very heavily for being so irresponsible. Money will flee the US, and the cost to further borrow for the government would go up. A lot.

If the US does not pay whoever it owns money to, either people will go hungry (from cuts of their retirement checks, etc) and the capacity of the populace to buy stuff would go down. The other option is not to pay some of the bondholders in which case the US debt would be considered junk and the crisis in confidence will not be something the US can recover from in any reasonable term.

Either way, the prospects for the US economy to grow would be shot for the short term and probably also the intermediate term. The interbank loan rate should go up and interest rates for mortgages etc will also go up, thereby slowing the economy further. The dollar should devalue, but its likely that a race to devalue currencies would ensue: after all, the US market keeps many of the other world economies going. This is a situation where inflation would be king.

Scenario 2: Cap, Cut and balance.

In this case, the US does not default (slightly less bad), but given that I live in California where a similar set of laws exists, I can not tell you how lousy this option is. This is, the US would not be able to borrow to stimulate the economy, it would have to fire a huge number of individuals in government and the recession will continue: no one will be able to afford stuff. Moreover,  funding for innovation would be cut down. The prospects for the US economy to grow would go down and shrink: for the US to grow one needs a clear signal that the US government is willing to stimulate the economy. Shrinking the participation of the government in the economy is not going to do it. Again, I would expect that the stock market would also punish the US because the economy will shrink. I mean, who’s going to be buying stuff in the store when the number of layoff is increasing?

Currently in California we require a 2/3 majority to raise taxes: under a mandated balanced budget formula and given that there is a political party that treats the ‘no raise taxes’ as a religious mantra, the only way to keep things running is to cut, and keep cutting, even when there is nothing left to cut. This leaves the future generations paying for the mistakes of today by dismantling their chances of education, or even their availability of health care. We’re already seeing this. The only way for the University of California system to cope is to increase tuition. This is a tax on poor people: in some sense it forces them out of the ability to be educated and condemns them to be poor forever. I don’t wish this on the rest of the US.

Overall, I think it is in the best interest of the US to not tie itself into a straitjacket and to be able to respond to crisis by borrowing to stimulate the economy. Worse case scenario just print money and take a bit of a hit on inflation.

Faster than light, smaller than an atom

I was grading a test for my students, and I was surprised -again- by some of the answers that they can give.

They are happy to measure velocities in units of action, and energies in apples and oranges.

I also get answers of the form

$v = 8.909563829\times 10^{23} m/s$

a couple of orders of magnitude faster than the speed of light, or of wavelengths of the form

$\lambda=6.9 \times 10^{-23} m$

for an optical transition in the UV. This is only a couple of orders of magnitude smaller than the size of an atom, at distances that we have not yet been able to measure in any lab.

I wonder if there is a cure for this out there: some way to get the students to understand on their own if an answer is nonsense or not so that they can double check their work, rather than believe blindly the result of a bad computation.

I’m still busy

Please accept my apologies for the lack of updates. I have been very busy.

There are so many things I’ve wanted to write about. The LHC started working again and there have been collisions. Mercedes Sosa and Lev Kofman passed away. There was a Thanksgiving holiday where a lot of food was eaten.

I’m teaching General relativity and I have given up on keeping my notes online. I’m in a committee that takes away whatever little time I have. My capacity to do research this quarter has been slowed tremendously, in great part because I have to grade and do more work, even though supposedly I should be taking furlough days off. The University I work for is having trouble and the prospects for the near future are quite bleak. I’m also one of the people with the charge of finding ways to get donor support for the UCSB physics department. I’ll extend my begging hand in your general direction: can you spare some change for poor physics students?

On quite another note, I am troubled by the recent developments in Latin American foreign politics. I’m aghast at the recent decision by the Swiss to ban minarets by popular vote, and I just remembered that when I was a teenager in a land far away, one of my high school professors got fired for being gay. At least that was the rumor going on at the time in my high school.

Finally, to leave on a cute note, I read this comic of Xkcd on how physicists cope with being in vacuum on a frictionless surface. I can sympathize with the poor professor. At least the sound stops when the air goes out, unlike many other science fiction loud explosions in vacuum.

The correlation length of notation

Well, I’m buried up to my head in work trying to finish up a paper. I have been doing this for a while. A project that should have ended with a 20 page paper ballooned on me, and now I am writing a paper on the edge of 50 pages.

Which brings me to the title of the post. Fifty pages is a long paper. There is an additional problem in writing such a long paper. This is that by the time I’m writing the end, I’ve somewhat forgotten what I’ve written before. Mre specifically, not so much the content, but the way in which it was written. And even more specifically, what precise notation was used.

For example, just to give you a feel,  was it ${\mathbb C}$ or ${\bf C}$, or was it ${\cal C}$? Or was it $A,B$, rather than $W,Z$.

I’m writing stream of consciousness, so it can  be fixed later when I’m combing through the paper. Moreover, the longer the paper, the more symbols and fonts one needs, and they can  start overlapping. This means that notation degenerates as I’m writing a paper. It’s not consistent for more than I can work on in one day. About five pages that is. So that is what I will call the correlation length of notation: the amount of pages that one writes before the notation mutates and starts getting disordered.

So, on a 50 page paper, there are ten correlation lengths of notation, so the end looks nothing like the beginning in terms of notation. This gets worse with more authors. And don’t even get me started on writing books. To fix this, one has to ‘cool down the system’ so that it becomes ordered (I’m making an analogy with ferromagnetism here). This requires time and many passes. So a paper of length $m$ seems to take of order of $m^2$ time to write it down. Maybe that critical exponent is different.

There is always a plan B: give a guide to notation changes so that the work is piled on the reader. What do you think of this strategy? This seems to be the way for books, because there are many conventions that overlap: they come from different developments by different authors. Fortunately our brains seem to be able to read contextually, and $E$ can be energy, and electric field and $e$ can be the electric charge and the Euler constant all of them in the same equation, when it becomes obvious how to interpret it. Isn’t it?

The quarter is finally over.

Well, that’s it! I have just finished teaching the last class of this quarter. The rest of my lecture notes for the class are here. I covered less than what I had originally intended. The last sets of notes are sketches of the ideas of holomorphy and basic aspects of supersymmetric vacua, plus some basic intro to the (softly broken) minimal supersymmetric standard model. So after getting five extra minutes of free time to celebrate the end of the quarter, there is all the rest of the backlog of work that I have to plow through.

I’m going to be nice to the readers and restrict my rant to my research (the rest would take some considerable extra rant).

When crackpots become spammers.

Today I received a purported message from the American Physical Society. It was an html page with claims like these:

Not necessaries more experiments, theories and models about the particle and atomic world, because now exists the very simple and real physics of these!

As Moshe would say, this is a typical crackpot comment. However, it goes much further than usual:

We state positively that her paper is the giant revolution of the physics science. We wish with this mail to suggest Prof. Gabor Fekete for Nobel Prize.

Afterward it suggests that I exert pressure on the Royal Sweedish Academy of Sciences to that effect.

Looking at the headers, the e-mail was sent from Hungary. It also has quite a few names of physicists in the top of the advert. It even insinuates that the Nobel prize winners in Physics of last year are endorsing this. The APS would never send a message like this, especially not with such a ridiculously bad English grammar.

I definitely think this breaks the mold and should not be tolerated. Hence, a post with full name and an explicit claim that this is spam and crackpot physics.

PS. If your name is on the header of this advert and you are not a party to endorsing this sending, I suggest that you protest heavily the use of your name in association with this mail.